Sunday Reflections: What a few minutes searching Google Images for “Prom Dresses” taught me
Friday night, The Tween had friends spend the night. Like her, these are all girls on the verge of 13. Between the 3 of them they consumed 2 pizzas, 24 chocolate chip cookies (or the equivalent in cookie dough), 12 sodas, ice cream floats, cheese sticks, and in the morning, 9 donuts. They did crafts, they played truth or dare, they stayed up far too late getting punchy – and they looked at Prom dresses.
That’s right, at one point in the evening one of them busted out the iPad and did a Google Image search for prom dresses. “Hate it.” “Love it, but not in this color,” they said. Sometimes they oohed and aahed.
But soon a disturbing trend became clear.
As they flipped through picture after picture of prom dress ads, it became evident that most of the models where white girls. Usually they had long, silky, flowing hair. They were almost always thin and reasonably endowed in the chest area – enough to hold up a strapless dress, which were very prolific, but not so much that you would question whether or not they were taking a huge safety risk by forgoing any straps or support.
We occasionally saw a model who might have been Latina, though it was hard to say for certain. We stumbled upon two models who were people of color, though they were light skinned and had straightened hair that mirrored those of all the models that came before.
And then they clicked upon this picture . . . .
How it ended up in this search is an example of the pitfalls of keyword searching. The image itself is tagged under “worst prom dresses.” It stands out among all the shiny ads for a variety of reasons, but there is no escaping the horrific stereotypes when presented with this image. It’s especially horrible when you consider that we had scanned pages and pages of prom dress ads and one of the very few diversity representations these 12 year old girls came across was this, a biased representation that seemed to perpetuate negative stereotypes of black girls. Of course the black girl in high school is pregnant, and we should probably assume she is on welfare if the stereotypes are to believed. But they’re not true by any means, so why, when less then 5% of the dresses we saw featured a person of color was this one of them? The answer, of course, is that we are still doing a horrible job of representing people who don’t fit our pretty, thin, white girl dynamic that dominates our culture. Even better if she’s blonde.
I had been growing increasingly disturbed as I took stock of the images they passed by in their search. There was almost no body diversity. If any of these girls in my home were struggling with body image, and statistics tell us that they probably were, this was not the way to help assuage their fears.
Now this seemingly simple and fun search had several strikes against it. These girls were subconsciously being inundated with a variety of negative messages and I needed to intervene.
So I gently told them that they needed to find a different activity to do. I mentioned that I thought it was wrong that there wasn’t more diversity in the models that they used, and we talked about how those images didn’t represent the people that they saw in their schools. We talked about real people and respect and being comfortable with who you are. And I thought about how so many preteen and teenage girls are sitting in their rooms alone doing these very types of searches, with no adult to ask them what they think about what they are seeing, challenging them to put these prom dresses pictures into the context of the real world.
My daughter and her friends aren’t always going to have a thoughtful adult looking over their shoulders asking them to question what they see on the Internet, but maybe if we ask them every time we can, it will become a part of their daily routine. I want the teens in my life, whether they be the one I gave birth to or the ones that come see me in the library, to question the world that they live in and to work to make it better. I want them to come to expect diversity so routinely that it’s absence would seem unquestionably offensive. I want them to reject narratives and marketing that suggest girls should all be and look and think a certain way. I want them to feel free to embrace not only themselves, but the various people they will meet in the course of life who will be radically different than them.
It was a simple search, “Prom dresses”. But it ended up telling me so much about the world that my daughters are growing up in. The results weren’t representative of any type of reality that our teens are navigating, which means we are failing them all. We have to do better. We have to be better. Diverse books are a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. There are so many elements out there shaping how our teens view themselves and the people around them. Let’s all be better consumers of culture.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
SLJ Blog Network